China is playing a dangerous game

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The geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to reverberate, with China now drawn into the vortex. A request from Moscow to Beijing for military assistance has been met with a fierce western response. The US said there would be “serious consequences” if China helps Russia’s war efforts.

How much of this rhetoric is empty or helpful is hard to fathom. The consequences of the sanctions and threatened embargoes on Russian exports are serious enough; imposing similar measures on China, which is even more embedded in the global trading nexus, is another matter altogether.

Beijing says it has no knowledge of the request reported by unnamed US officials and even if an approach has been made there is no sign yet that it is being acted on. 

Moreover, what does such an approach signify? That the Russians have so degraded their equipment in Ukraine that they need more weapons? Or that they want to draw another big power onto their side in what is now becoming a fight with the democratic West, not just a land grab in Ukraine.

It would hardly suit China to see the markets for its goods cut off or impaired when its economy is recovering after the pandemic. A humiliated and isolated Russia might be advantageous to Beijing since China would by necessity become the principal market for its goods, in particular commodities like oil, gas and minerals. In such a world, Russia would become a client state.

Furthermore, sanctioning China when our economies are not ready would be reckless. It is now clear we did not have a plan to absorb the shock of energy price rises. We would just be compounding one strategic error with another.

The reality remains that, for all the talk of “serious consequences” for any country helping Russia’s war effort, the biggest assistance to the Kremlin still comes from the sale of oil and gas to European countries. India has been criticised for failing to vote against the invasion at the UN and is now offering to buy up Russian oil at discounted prices. But for as long as Germany, Italy and the rest continue to rely on energy from Russia, it is hard to lecture others for doing the same.

Why should Vladimir Putin back down if he can still rely on his economy being propped up by its revenues from energy exports? Unless Europe can rapidly wean itself off this dependence, he continues to hold a critical card.

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